Environment
12:15 pm
Fri September 27, 2013

Saving Wild Places in the 'Anthropocene'

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

We've been talking about the Stone Age but now we're living in what some scientists are calling the anthropocene. Maybe you've never heard of that word. It's a time where everything on the planet is touched by humans in some way, whether it's directly, like clear cutting forests or suppressing fires, or indirectly by the effects of climate change. Is this, as the environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote, oh, 20 years ago, is this the end of nature?

What do you think that nature is? On the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act and nearly 50 years after the Wilderness Act, is it time to rethink our concept of what wild places really are, and if so, how to protect them? And what about the species that live in our national parks and our wilderness areas? Should we move them? Think about it. Should we move them if their habitats shift due to global warming or would that not be truly natural enough? Would we be tinkering around with nature?

What about all these invasive species that come about? You can see the dilemma we're in. And let's see if our guests can talk us through it. William Cronon is an environmental historian associated with the Center for Culture History and Environment. That's part of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies here at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Cronon.

WILLIAM CRONON: Good to be here.

FLATOW: And Paul Robbins is professor and director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Robbins.

PAUL ROBBINS: Thanks, glad to be here.

FLATOW: Paul, let me ask you first, is this model of setting aside a tract of land and calling it a wilderness area - I mean, is it obsolete? Do we need to rethink how to protect wild places in the 21st century?

ROBBINS: I wouldn't want to throw wilderness areas under the bus but, you know, in the last 30 years, the number of protected areas has tripled around the world and the average size of them is about half as big as they used to be, which means we're setting aside more and more small areas that are heavily influenced by people. And they're not necessarily wildernesses. They're influenced by people so embracing that probably is a very practical way of thinking about biodiversity protection.

FLATOW: Bill Cronon, do you think - do you agree with that?

CRONON: Well, I would say that when we set aside wilderness we're not just setting aside an area that stands for a part of nature we want to protect. We're also protecting certain values of ours of what we believe in and what we want the world to be. And so I don't think actually that the project of protecting wild nature or protecting nonhuman organisms is going to go away. You know, I hope that that remains a core enterprise of the human species for a very long time to come. But we do, I think, need to change the way we think about that as we go forward.

FLATOW: Yeah, let's get into that. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in Madison, Wisconsin. If you'd like to ask questions, please feel free to go up to the microphone and talk about it. Now let me follow up on that, Bill. What do you mean we have to think differently about it?

CRONON: Well, Paul pointed to one problem, which is it is now the case that no matter how large the units of land that we protect with boundaries that we mark out as wilderness, they are on a planet that is increasingly altered by human activities. And there's no way we can somehow wall off those areas from the scale of changes that are happening to the climate, to various changes in animal populations, to disease organisms. All the kinds of changes you've been talking about for the past half hour operate on a planetary scale now. So you need to worry about that.

There was a wonderful project done by a colleague of mine here at the University of Wisconsin, Don Waller, who revisited a series of field sites that had been visited by scientists here 50 years ago. And what he found interestingly - he checked for biodiversity, the levels of diversity on those sites - was that the areas where diversity had declined the most - and diversity had declined everywhere - were the areas that were most protected. The areas that were most managed for their wild values were the areas where biodiversity had declined the most. Now that seems completely counterintuitive.

FLATOW: Yes, absolutely.

CRONON: And yet the reason for it made perfect sense when they studied it, which was those were the areas where hunting wasn't allowed. And because hunting wasn't allowed it was where deer populations were highest. And it turns out that deer are one of the most important stresses on many of the plant species that were disappearing from those areas.

FLATOW: I can tell from my own back yard that the deer...

CRONON: Right. So that says if we want to protect those organisms in those areas, we need to think about what are the mechanisms that control deer in those areas.

FLATOW: Paul, you're shaking your head like crazy. You're agreeing with these things?

ROBBINS: Absolutely. And I think that finding is really indicative of things we're learning all over the world. It's a kind of global revolution in conservation that working landscapes can be terrifically productive of biodiversity and species protection.

FLATOW: So are you saying then that we have to change what we think of as nature, as wilderness? And you know, it's not what your grandpa's wilderness was and get used to it.

CRONON: I would say that we need new metaphors. It would be great to proliferate a lot of new metaphors. The journalist Emma Marris calls the Earth a rambunctious garden. I really like that one. The idea that we are gardening the Earth, but - and so it's not a wilderness.

ROBBINS: Mm-hmm.

CRONON: But at the same time, you can't really control it. It's rambunctious. It's truly always, always beyond us to fully control.

FLATOW: So do we treat wildernesses like we treat animals in a nature preserve? You know, we put them in a zoo so they don't disappear? What do we do with the wilderness?

ROBBINS: Well, that's two different things.

FLATOW: Yeah.

ROBBINS: Wilderness is a place untrammeled by man, as the Wilderness Act actually puts it.

FLATOW: Is there such a place?

ROBBINS: I don't think so, but there are places less trammeled. Roadless areas was one of the major criteria for setting aside wilderness and it's important because roads go almost everywhere.

FLATOW: Yeah.

ROBBINS: But if what you want to save are species, you might be saving them in places very much filled with roads. So that's the question. What do you value? Are you valuing the untrammeledness or do you want to save the non-humans? And those are not always the same goal.

FLATOW: Yeah. How do you decide the priorities on these things?

CRONON: Well, that's what politics is.

FLATOW: Ah.

(LAUGHTER)

CRONON: And that's what...

FLATOW: I knew it'd get to that sooner or later.

CRONON: That's what conversations about human values are about, because ultimately it's people arguing with each other about the things they hold dear. The English literary critic Raymond Williams long ago said that the word nature is the most complicated word in the English language, and he's surely close to being right in that there are many, many different kinds of nature.

And we often point at nature when we want to point at things that we value very highly. So wilderness is one kind of nature. So, though, are working lands. So are gardens. Those are all natures.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to get that - keep that conversation going. Please step up to the mic in our audience here in Madison. We're going to take a break and talk about defining wilderness. Do we need to redefine it? What does it mean? We'll be right back after this break. Stay with us. Don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about remaining wild places, our national parks, our wilderness areas with my guests William Cronon, who is an environmental historian associated with the Center for Culture, History and the Environment at the University of Wisconsin here in Madison. Paul Robbins, professor and director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the U here.

And we're taking your calls here in Madison. Let me - before we go to the people in the audience asking questions, would it be fair that, considering your definitions of natural habitat, would it be fair to say that your lawn, your backyard lawn is a natural place in this new definition?

ROBBINS: Absolutely. Lawns are thoroughly natural. The turf grasses are evolved to - under grazing conditions in Europe, which is why they need to be mowed. So they're actually - this is an evolutionary hangover in a sense of that effect, which is why your lawn mower has to go out every morning, you know, clipping it away. So it's natural but it's of course thoroughly unnatural, absolutely monocultural.

It naturally wants to have all kinds of weeds so it's thoroughly unnatural and that's why nature, as powerful as it is (unintelligible) very useful word.

FLATOW: Are there purists who are going to push back on you about your definition of what the wilderness is, pushing back?

ROBBINS: This is a very contentious question and it's unresolved and there are some scientific questions that are unresolved about what human impacts are really, really...

FLATOW: Yeah.

ROBBINS: ...serious problems for the global system. So there's - it's a contentious claim.

CRONON: So one thing I would add here is that it's crucial always, I think, to remember that culture exists inside of nature. Without nature humanity wouldn't exist on this planet, but in the anthropocene - and I would say earlier too - nature exists inside of culture.

FLATOW: Right.

CRONON: And there are - one of the things I hold dear about wilderness that I think hasn't been put on the table here is that big wilderness, the areas like Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Arctic Refuge that are set aside as remote places, we go there to see the non-human as not unaffected by us but as uncontrolled by us. And that distinction between whether we control something as opposed to whether we affect something is one that's very important to keep track of.

Being able to change the world doesn't mean that we know what we're doing when we change the world.

FLATOW: Well, in reality, though, aren't some of the beautiful places in our natural parks visible to us because humans were involved?

CRONON: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Give me an example.

CRONON: Yosemite would be a classical example where the burning of the valley of Yosemite by Native American fires in the 19th century is one of the things that opened that landscape. One of the things that makes Yosemite as powerful as a visual icon is, is that the valley is pastoral. It's the open landscape that Paul was describing. And the cliffs...

FLATOW: Right.

CRONON: ...are sublime mountain spaces. And you see the cliffs in part because there are open spaces down below that you can see that scene through.

FLATOW: Because somebody burned it away so you can see it.

CRONON: Exactly. Exactly.

FLATOW: So we think of it as really natural and as pure but it's...

CRONON: It's both. It's both (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: It's both. OK. Let's go to the audience here. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes. My question was along that lines of management of these wildlife areas. An example is fire. And the recent fires in Colorado, California, Yosemite and so forth are partly, I understand, due to preservation and putting down fires so that the vegetation builds up so much that you have a tsunami of fire and things change. So these wilderness areas have to have natural or even some manmade help of fires to really keep them natural.

And that's another way we're strongly influencing what goes on there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And it becomes...

FLATOW: You want to comment on that?

ROBBINS: Yeah. Quite a political shock, if anybody remembers the great fires in Yellowstone in the late '80s. It was quite a shock to the system for the Park Service that had been suppressing fire for so long to try to communicate what it was doing exactly and why it was doing it. It was essentially under orders to keep fire under control.

CRONON: But I would say that as a general pattern, modern humanity doesn't like fire. So when we take a landscape and make it - I would say here in southern Wisconsin, southern Wisconsin is now more forested than it has been for maybe 5,000 to 7,000 years because of the need to protect barns and farm buildings and fences and all the infrastructure people that put into a landscape, we don't like it to burn down.

So that stopping a fire in that landscape is part of how we manipulate and change the world. It's not just national parks that that's true. Southern Wisconsin is being set up right now. There's a fuel load building up...

FLATOW: It's building up.

CRONON: ...in this landscape where big fire will eventually return here.

FLATOW: Really?

CRONON: Yeah.

FLATOW: You heard it first here.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: On SCIENCE FRIDAY. Yes. Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, hi. So I think it's fairly well understood that humans can be a very destructive influence on environments and on almost a global scale, with pollution and extinctions and global warming. Are there any examples of, like, net positive influence that our species has had ever?

(LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: You bet. I think that one of the things that's most exciting about this change in our thinking about conservation is to allow us to be creative and to look for places where we see bounties of biodiversity. We're doing some work in southern India right now, working to define biodiversity. It means amphibians, avians, rare endemic species, and where are they turning up? They're turning up in vast plantations of coffee, vast plantations of rubber.

These are areas thousands of square miles that are crafted by humanity and they are producing wildlife that you don't find in adjacent areas. So this is just an example.

FLATOW: Well, one of the things that you've touched on with your study of India is that different cultures think of nature in different ways and not necessarily like the American ideal of an untouched wilderness.

ROBBINS: In India, I think wilderness doesn't make a lot of sense culturally in terms of the culture history, but the animals are sacred. So - many animals are sacred in parts of India where I've worked, and so there's a conservation ethic at work in the culture but it doesn't look anything like the American conservation tradition. It's a funny hybrid.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, I remember when I was college before everybody was born here, and the environmental movement was just starting and they started an Ecology 101 course and the one question that no one had ever talked about before is, beginning an environment movement - and one thing I've been thinking about for 30 more years - and the question was, what is the role of man?

What is man's niche? Everything in the environment, every animal, plant, has a niche. What is the human niche in the environment? Got an answer for me?

ROBBINS: Oh, I most certainly do not, but I'd like to think that we're tinkerers by nature and that's a bold claim, but there's an almost irrepressible tinkering quality to the species which is both pernicious and, you know, joyfully creative.

CRONON: But the other answer, I think Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma," that title suggests part of the answer to the question, which is that we are omnivores and not just relative to food. We occupy many, many, many, many niches and one of the things culture and intelligence allow us to do is to move into other - into areas that other species might not be able to occupy...

FLATOW: Yeah.

CRONON: ...in such a multitude of ways, often by manipulating the places...

FLATOW: Yeah, well, that was my own - my own conclusion was that our niche is that we can change our niche.

CRONON: Right.

FLATOW: We have the ability to change what our niche is at any one time.

CRONON: There are other species - ants do that. There are many, you know, the social insects...

FLATOW: Right.

CRONON: ...create niches for themselves, so...

FLATOW: I've got a niche right here. Let's go to the audience.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thanks. This question is for Dr. Cronon. I've seen your work in "The Greatest Good" and "National Parks: America's Best Idea." And those two movies present different viewpoints, one conservation, the other preservation. And I was wondering what you personally see yourself as, conservationist or preservationist, or can you be both? Or does it depend on the area you're looking at?

CRONON: All of the above would be my answer. But I can't actually myself imagine the dichotomy conservation and preservation which we typically use when we're looking back at the history of American environmental politics between those who think you need to use landscapes in multiple ways and those thinks we need to protect them so that they are nature in that kind of preservationist definition of nature.

It's hard for me to imagine American environmental politics without both of those. We need to use nature for our survival. We need food and fiber and all the other ecosystem services that allow humanity to be on the planet. And that's conservation. The modern word for conservation would be sustainability. And everybody who invokes sustainability I think is returning to those progressive era conservation values.

On the other hand, as you've already heard me say here, I can't imagine a world in which we don't honor the non-human in its unmanaged form. And that's the role that I think preservation has consistently played in our culture.

FLATOW: But we are losing so many species around the world. We're going through the greatest mass extinction in this species' history, you know, no question it's a crisis.

CRONON: Yeah.

FLATOW: So how do we stop that? I mean, is that our niche? Is that our niche to eliminate other species?

ROBBINS: I would certainly hope not. I actually think that the generative capacity, again, of people's ability to work with nature - if we can create niches for ourselves, I think we can fashion niches for others.

CRONON: But that's, again, where we need both conservation and preservation. We've heard from Paul, rightly, that many species can thrive in areas that we also are harvesting. There are other species - the grizzly would be a classical example - where they need distance from us in order to thrive.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What about other invasive species? You know, we've seen the Asian carp. We've seen these fish jumping out of - into boats, knocking people over, things like that. Invading the Great Lakes. Are these things we should be welcoming as new food sources maybe to eat them? Or should we be trying to go push them back? Or what's your thinking on this?

ROBBINS: Terrifically contentious one, to get on the air and take a position on. You know, you wind up with phone calls. The...

FLATOW: That's what we do here.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: It seems to me that many of these invasions are so far - are such a foregone conclusion that fighting them tooth and nail with fire and, worst yet, with herbicides in large quantities, the cure is worse than the disease. On the other hand, if there is something that you really value and you need to protect it, then the invasives need to be addressed head on. And so I think it's very contextual.

I started my career very anti-invasives. I ran into Lantana camara and Proposis juliflora, these New World plants, all over India and they were running amok and I was pulling my hair out. Nature's being destroyed. And now I've kind of learned to love them. They provide a habitat for many of the species that we're worried about. The Hanuman langur monkey can eat the Lantana plant. It's adapting.

FLATOW: So what do we do about our zebra mussels and kudzu and things like that? Are they here - are they...

ROBBINS: Kudzu is interesting. Kudzu was greeted as the savior of the South in the 1930s. The guy who brought kudzu to the South was celebrated as a man who was going to end the Great Depression and he ended up dying, you know, on his porch with his house overrun by kudzu.

(LAUGHTER)

ROBBINS: And this...

FLATOW: Poetic justice, or?

ROBBINS: Well, you know, kudzu was a great plant if what you had was a cattle economy.

FLATOW: Right.

ROBBINS: And when they switched to forestryism in the Southeast of the United States is a major forestry hub now, the forest, you know, in a sense invaded the kudzu instead of the other way around. Such that now it was going to be pernicious. Beavers in Tierra Del Fuego set loose decades ago are overrunning forestry and they're hated. On the other hand, they make dams out on the grassland which the sheepherders love. Same species, two totally different effects.

CRONON: So the lesson that I think is that we need to make finer grain distinctions than those words allow us. Invasive, non-invasive, native, non-native. Part of it is just evolution evolving in a cosmopolitan world. Which is not to say anything goes but we do need to be able to distinguish among the roles that these different organisms play in their new habitats. And we also have to assess this, as Paul's saying, whether they can be resistant.

Some of them are now so cosmopolitan worldwide that there's no way they're going to be rolled back from their new habitat.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here in Madison, Wisconsin. And so we love to put things in boxes, is what you're saying. We love to label things, don't we? But you're saying we need a finer point, looking at each one of these species individually.

ROBBINS: Absolutely. And of course, each of those species themselves has a different political constituency. Almost all species do. So they're good for some people and bad for others. And so those are going to get worked out as struggles over what kind of nature we should produce. That is politics, exactly as Bill said.

CRONON: And we human beings think in categories. We can't know the world without naming it. That active naming is as foundational to human consciousness as anything I know.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

CRONON: But we only become creative when we look at the names we're using and ask what they mean. And that's a complicated question.

FLATOW: What do we need to know more of, more about, so that we can make progress in the areas that you're talking?

ROBBINS: I think there are some very basic empirical questions about what species do well under what kind of humanized conditions, the kind of distinctions that Bill was making. Some things need to be far away from people. We can name those. Some seem to do very well near people, like pigeons. So we have pigeons versus grizzlies.

FLATOW: But there's thousands, hundreds of thousands, of other species about which we know very little how they're going to fare under changing climate conditions, interaction with new invasives, roadsides, and that's a lot of science that needs to be done. So basic empirical questions.

CRONON: And my other answer to it would be I've been defending the word nature here and I will, but the one usage of the word nature that I think is always problematic is that when we say, well, it's natural, as if that means it's just the way it is. And when we use the word nature that way, it means we've stopped asking questions. We've stopped learning because we're saying this is just a given. We don't need to think about it anymore. It's fixed. And that's almost always the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

FLATOW: So what do we teach people about nature? What do they need to know?

CRONON: We need to look at it very hard and we need to think very hard and we also need to recognize that almost always when we look into nature it's reflecting back our own values that we are seeing. When we look at it, it's reflecting back our own beliefs.

FLATOW: But, as you say, different people have different values.

CRONON: Right. That's why it's politics.

FLATOW: For nature.

CRONON: Politics happens at the interface of different values, different people coming into each other's presence and having to work out their shared vision of the world. That's politics.

FLATOW: Is that - well, politics, as they say, is all local, right?

CRONON: Right.

FLATOW: So it's local here in Madison. It's local in the state. It's local in the communities. How - how - as they say in the weather report, how hyper local is it, you know?

ROBBINS: I think it's awfully local, often. I think - that's also an open question. I think the world's fairly flat, in the sense that things interact with each other all over and they get worked out only ever really, really between some very small groups of people often - communities. I think that's generally true.

CRONON: But the word anthropocene, which you introduced here, is meant to be planetary. Right? It's a claim about the planet and what's so interesting, I think, about the anthropocene is the scaled nature of the locals. That there are debates about the meanings of these environmental concerns that we're talking about. Some are planetary and some are on the scale of this room. Some are on the scale of my gut, as your last guest suggested.

ROBBINS: Yeah. We're - almost everybody in the country is living under a climate treaty. It just isn't the Kyoto Protocol; it's the mayors' climate protection agreement. So everyone has - in most cities in the country have signed aboard a non-binding, highly local treaty which does different things in different placed on local conditions in politics.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so it really is even down to your lawn.

ROBBINS: Oh, definitely down to your lawn. You're making biodiversity decisions every time you fire up that lawnmower.

CRONON: It's true. He's right.

FLATOW: We don't think of ourselves as naturalists, but you're saying that we need to think of ourselves...

ROBBINS: Everyone is a naturalist. I think that's - and that's the other role, the grand role, for education in the classic liberal sense.

FLATOW: All right. Well, this is quite interesting. Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us today. William Cronon is an environmental historian associated with the Center for Culture, History, and Environment here at University of Wisconsin in Madison. Paul Robbins is professor and director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Thanks for joining us today. I'm Ira Flatow in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.